Addiopizzo and the Valdibella Cooperative

Katie Mather meets the co-op facing down Mafia corruption.


Sicily still struggles with The Mob. In picturesque cobbled streets where sandy limestone market towns lean into their squares, on the dry farming plains and the sloping volcanic vineyards, in the sun-drenched fishing villages and on remote agricultural terraces, the Mafia remains a very real presence in the lives of thousands of Sicilians.

But the Mafia, as it is in Sicily today, is not one criminal organisation, but a cartel of individual organised gangs operating loosely together under a similar code of conduct, using the term “Mafia” as more of a brand than an actual umbrella company. It’s difficult to understand, unless you’re Sicilian. There, there’s not much to understand. They exist, these gangs, and they extort and exploit businesses you know; maybe even your business. They traffic drugs and refugees, commit fraud, launder money, commit murder. In another form they exist as part of Sicilian civic life — a persistent problem with the collection and removal of rubbish around Palermo is directly caused by the interference of official lawmakers into a long-standing and lucrative private garbage disposal business in the area operated by the local Mafia. Once the police got involved, and then the army, it became a less attractive business prospect. They moved on to easier, less risky projects like arms smuggling. The people of Palermo were left with piles of rubbish in the streets no longer collected by anyone, and the situation is still in the process of being officially rectified.

“We are not afraid,” says Caterina Lo Bocchiaro, Sales Manager for Valdibella, a winemaking and agricultural cooperative based in Palermo. Launched in 1998, the Valdibella cooperative has worked to identify and then undo the cultural and socio-economic barriers and challenges that Sicilians experience on a daily basis. Their website states their aim: to restore dignity to farmers, promoting concrete actions against commercial and labour exploitation and promoting organic agricultural methods that focus on biodiversity and native crops.

“They can only touch you when you feel alone. We can say we can defeat the Mafia. We are proud to say no.”

“A People Who Pay Pizzo is a People Without Dignity”

Saying “no” is a specific rejection as well as an ideological or political stance in Sicily. Addiopizzo is a nonprofit charity and legal network Valdibella are active members of. It encourages its members to stand up to the Mafia by refusing to pay the “pizzo” — extorted protection money. The name translates to English as “Goodbye Pizzo”, and the aim of the network is clear: to build a cultural revolution against the Mafia. Their mission statement when they began, anonymous at the time, was printed on stickers and left all over Palermo, demanding dignity for the people of Palermo and of Sicily. 

Addiopizzo work with independent business owners to provide support against organised criminal activity, and even offer an emergency fund to help recover from criminal damage and ursury (loan sharking) committed against their business while refusing to pay the pizzo. Caterina explains the importance of joining forces with Addiopizzo:

“We are working with people with social difficulties who would be easily exploited elsewhere. The aim is to work to be free of the Mafia and the problems they cause. It’s a big problem for the island.”

“Addiopizzo works in schools also, to promote the legal approach of working and owning a business — we put on events, fairs and festivals in Palermo to promote the dignified way of working, featuring only producers who refuse to pay the pizzo. Having the Addiopizzo branding on our products shows clearly that we do not pay the pizzo, and hopefully encourages others to join.”

Additionally, Addiopizzo also organises meetings with businesses to help them with the legal side and to support them in refusing the pizzo. “We’re open-minded,” says Caterina, “We work with all manner of producers and partners to help prevent Mafia activities.”

As of August 2021, there are 1028 Sicilian businesses within the Addiopizzo association, and 184 local schools involved in Addiopizzo’s anti-racket training projects.

Produce that Produces Change

“We are wine producers that also produce other products,” Caterina explains, painting a picture of a network of independent farmers throughout the Palermo region.

“We started out as five farms in the beginning, and are now, with more than 30 farms, the largest cooperative organisation in Sicily, and we focus on organic farming. There is not another option for sustainable and ethical agriculture.”

In its production of organic and natural wines, Valdibella really focuses on practical vineyard management, concentrating on specific techniques: bush-trained or espalier-trained cultivation, producing low yields and using zero tillage, green pruning and manual harvesting. There’s even a cooperative Biodiversity Charter, to set accountability for the ecological work they do.

“Thanks to the clay soil of our land the wines have a high content of extractive matter and a balanced acidity,” says Caterina. 

“In the cellar we have a full respect for the natural features of the grape and keep interventions to a minimum. We do not add any synthetic chemical substances. All of our wines are made by spontaneous fermentation, in this way the wine can truly express the territory from which it comes! The organic grapes are rich in native yeasts that are perfectly able to carry out the fermentation. We use small doses of sulphites — still below half of the doses legally allowed. Some wines are also made entirely without adding sulphites.”

Valdibella’s cooperative of organic farmers also focuses on cultivating and regenerating vineyards of indigenous grapes like Nero d’Avola, Catarratto, Perricone, Grillo and Zibibbo, using low-intervention methods to produce wines that show the terroir of the island they love while trying hard to keep prices accessible and fair to all. One of their wines, a Nero D’Avola single variety called Kerasos, harks back to the ancient Greek settlers of the island in its name, which appropriately means “cherry” in Greek. Fresh, but deep and with a satisfying tannin structure, it does indeed taste like rich ripe cherries on a bed of soft leather, with warming notes of Moroccan tagine spices.

“Organic should be for everyone, not just for a small number of people who can afford it,” says Caterina. For cooperatives like Valdibella, and smaller independents not part of any coop, it’s hard to be visible. More and more large-scale farming companies claim to be using organic practices and offering artificially low prices. Caterina says it’s a challenge, but one they are well prepared for.

“Our prices are set by paying the right costs to the workers in the field. We can show you where our wine comes from, we can show you the difference between industrial organics and the rural organic farming everyone in the Valdibella cooperative commits to.” 

It’s important to the cooperative that they can prove that their profits are going back to the farmers, the field workers, promoting Valdibella to the wider world, supporting Addiopizzo projects and, ultimately, giving back to Sicily. Because from the beginning, Valdibella was about creating great local wine, naturally, but it was also about social and economic empowerment for young Sicilians. Without prospects, it’s easy to fall into criminal patterns laid out over generations. Working with the Jonathan Project, Valdibella helped to train young people in agriculture, artisanal skills and winemaking.

Vital work, as Addiopizzo point out in their mission statement: “It is not enough to accompany and support traders and entrepreneurs to report pizzo and extortion if one does not take charge of removing the pockets of poverty, urban and social decay that contribute to... organised crime.”

Can the wine in your glass do that?

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